Education Students

Say No to Soul-Crushing Education

The internet is a fascinating place. It holds on to people’s thoughts and writings for a long time. Of course, much of what we find on the web is not of lasting value. But some of it is.

A few weeks ago, I came across a high school graduation speech that apparently went viral almost six years ago. Erica Goldson delivered it at Coxsackie-Athens High School in Coxsackie, New York on June 25, 2010.

By all accounts, Erica was an excellent high school student. She stayed at the top in all her classes, aced all her tests, and was outstanding in all her extracurricular activities.

But though she graduated as Class Valedictorian, her valedictory speech was very harsh on the education she had received. Here are some of her criticisms:

Here I stand, and I am supposed to be proud that I have completed this period of indoctrination. I will leave in the fall to go on to the next phase expected of me, in order to receive a paper document that certifies that I am capable of work. But . . . I am a human being, a thinker, an adventurer—not a worker. A worker is someone who is trapped within repetition—a slave of the system set up before him. But now, I have successfully shown that I was the best slave. . . .

We are not enlivened by an educational system that clandestinely sets us up for jobs that could be automated, for work that need not be done, for enslavement without fervency for meaningful achievement. . . .

We are human beings. We are thinkers, dreamers, explorers, artists, writers, engineers. We are anything we want to be—but only if we have an educational system that supports us rather than holds us down. A tree can grow, but only if its roots are given a healthy foundation. . . .

[S]tand up, ask questions, be critical, and create your own perspective. Demand a setting that will provide you with intellectual capabilities that allow you to expand your mind instead of directing it. Demand that you be interested in class. Demand that the excuse “You have to learn this for the test” is not good enough for you. Education is an excellent tool, if used properly, but focus more on learning rather than getting good grades.

For those of you that work within the system that I am condemning, I do not mean to insult; I intend to motivate. You have the power to change the incompetencies of this system. I know that you did not become a teacher or administrator to see your students bored. You cannot accept the authority of the governing bodies that tell you what to teach, how to teach it, and that you will be punished if you do not comply. Our potential is at stake.

For those of you that are now leaving this establishment, I say, do not forget what went on in these classrooms. Do not abandon those that come after you. We are the new future and we are not going to let tradition stand. We will break down the walls of corruption to let a garden of knowledge grow throughout America. Once educated properly, we will have the power to do anything, and best of all, we will only use that power for good, for we will be cultivated and wise. We will not accept anything at face value. We will ask questions, and we will demand truth.

Erica’s criticisms sound very familiar to those of us who are three or four times her age. How many books have been written, how many movies have been made, on the theme of young people whose spirits are crushed by a soul-deadening education system—a system that, as Erica says, too often values training over inspiration—so that the only recourse they seem to have is some sort of rebellion?

Of course, training is not to be dismissed entirely. Before one can create anything new, anything personal, anything original, there are facts that must be memorized, techniques that must be mastered, activities that must be practiced.

But surely those elements, though necessary, are not sufficient for the soul to breathe in the air of invention and take wing on its own flight of discovery. For that, students need to enter into the most breathtaking creations of the most extraordinary thinkers, artists, and craftsmen who ever lived. They need to live in and around those creations, viewing them from all angles, asking questions about them, relating them to their own lives, their own desires, their own hopes.

To be “educated properly,” as Erica puts it, is to be trained in the trainable elements—but only as a means to self-development, not as an end in itself. The end of education is a fully functioning human being—one who can dream greatly, who can lay plans to bring great dreams into being, who can learn from both success and failure, who can lay new plans for even greater dreams.

To the extent that education is more about training than about inspiring, it produces people who are more mechanical than human, who can work but cannot soar, who can eke out a living, but cannot live.

More than two centuries ago, the great German dramatist Friedrich Schiller expressed the same thought in his book On the Aesthetic Education of Man in a Series of Letters:

When society makes the measure of a man his job, when it respects in one citizen only his memory, in another only his intellectual capacity for tabulation, in a third only his mechanical aptitude; when in one case it emphasizes, without regard to character, only intelligence, while in another case it excuses the greatest murkiness of intellect in favor of an orderly disposition and a law-abiding tendency; when, in addition, it insists that these specialized skills be developed to so great a depth that it absolves the individual from developing breadth—is it any wonder that the other components of the soul are neglected in order to focus assiduously on the one that brings both respect and profit? (Letter 6, §8.)

We who call ourselves educators must fight continually to prevent this from happening. We must attend when our young people cry out against an educational system that does not nourish their souls. We must redouble our efforts to open up the masterworks that can inspire them to reach beyond themselves—and to continue reaching beyond themselves for as long as they live. We must support them while they sprout wings.

Because the end of education is not merely to learn, but to soar.